ON THE WINE ROAD: From the Douro to Napa Valley

Wine offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than possibly any other purely sensory thing which may be purchasedErnest Hemingway

Words and Photography courtesy of Michael Venezia 

The summer of 2015 was filled with many wine adventures made more enjoyable by my brief encounters along the way with new friends all sharing the same unquenchable thirst for this ancient beverage.

Whether we met while walking a vineyard in the blazing sun high above the Douro or in a cold barrel cellar in California’s Napa Valley tasting the youthful and slowly developing 2014 vintage Chardonnay, everyone shared the same evident passion. From vine to bottle, and from bottle to glass, the wine road never ends.

Portugal>>In mid-June I spent a magnificent 10 days rediscovering the Unesco World Heritage City of Porto, traveling up the Douro River exploring remote vineyard farms called quintas and staying for some days at a beautiful agroturism estate called the Casa das Pipas located in Portugal’s Cima Corgo.

Last visited in 1992, my memories of the past were very vivid, and the region still retains its wild and mystical personality. The terraced vineyards still cling to the hillsides, the Douro still snakes its way west through breathtaking landscapes to empty into the Atlantic Ocean, and the harsh climate, impenetrable schist soils and challenging labor conditions reward only the most deliberate.

For the past 250 years, the region has been renowned for the famous fortified wine called Port. Today the world is being reintroduced to a new manifestation of their native Portuguese varieties. A new generation of vintners are producing still wines, from light and airy, mineral laden whites, to deeply colored roses, and highly aromatic red wines with depth and richness.

Whether enjoying meals in Lisbon, Porto or at my base camp at the Casa das Pipas in Sobroso, the wines proved to be in some cases more delicious and food friendly as some of the benchmark wines of the world.

The marvelous ocean fresh seafood seemed to naturally accent the dry whites — Vinho Branco Secco. A memorable meal was enjoyed at the Rui Paula restaurant on the banks of the Douro near the village of Armamar.

Savory grilled prawns from Mozambique were served with a cocoa sauce and truffle puree. Simply prepared, the chilled rose’s crisp acidity and mineral character elevated the deep sea flavor of the tender crustacean.

An equally delicious filet of beef sourced from a local rancher, served with seared foie gras was brought to a classic pleasure crescendo with a special red blend from Quinta do Portal called Auru from the 2001 vintage. Served in magnum, the wine was deep in ruby color, soft as velvet, and seemed to have an aroma which identified its Douro origins fingerprint.

Be on the lookout for these dry styles of Portuguese wines as they are gaining enthusiastic support from savvy American retailers and forward thinking restaurant wine buyers. These wines should be sought out for their pure unpretentious pleasure, great historical tradition and exceptional values.

Northern California>>In July, eight days were spent traveling with a group of Atlanta wine industry professionals to the beautiful vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties.

Our wine road mission was to study grape growing and the cycle of the vine, basic wine making techniques, including intense wine tasting exercises and to discover the art of pairing food and wine.

The agenda culminated with a challenging exam created to measure their knowledge and to award those who achieved a passing grade the coveted CSW — Certified Specialist of Wine — credential to add to their professional resume.

Days and nights were spent at the Trinchero Family Winery, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Etude, Stags’ Leap Winery, Kendall-Jackson, Stonestreet, and Freemark Abbey.

From the valley floor to the highest elevation of mountain vineyards, the 2015 crop of cabernet sauvignon fruit stood out as beautifully set, although due to the continuing drought the projected yields for 2015 will be less than the previous vintage.

The berries are smaller on the mountain sides with thicker skins achieving higher pigments and therefore deeper colored wines. In addition the potential aromatics reflect the wild nature of these remote mountain sites.

It is not uncommon for some Cabernet Sauvignon to possess aromas of the flora which exists in the vineyards. Occasionally when a professional taster identifies hints of eucalyptus, fir, pine or bay leaf in their glass, it can be a fingerprint for mountain sourced fruit.

At this writing, the 2015 vintage is complete. High quality, but smaller yields. While waiting for these to come to market in 2019, seek out the very high quality 2012 vintage.

New York – Times Square>>A long weekend in August was spent in Manhattan enjoying the excitement of Times Square, surely one of the most global crossroads of the world. As a native of New York, I don’t consider myself a tourist in the Big Apple.

It had been two years since my last visit to this international beacon of humanity, and Times Square is truly the heart of the city that never sleeps. A visit to Grand Central Terminal reawakened my memories of meeting friends “under the clock” to pay a visit to the famous Grand Central Oyster Bar.

Patti and I staked a place at the bar and settled in to enjoy a selection of oyster dishes, these chilled mollusks were washed down by steely dry glasses of Muscadet de Sevre et Maine from the Loire Valley in France.
Clean and crisp without any oak interference, it was a classic food and wine marriage made in heaven.

Late in the afternoon of our last day we decided to enjoy some magnificent views of Manhattan from Bar 54, a rooftop lounge and restaurant set atop the tower of the Hyatt Times Square. Fifty-four stories above Times Square, it produces unobstructed views of the island of Manhattan with One World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower in the distance.

After a quick review of the bar list our server suggested a prosecco from the region of the Veneto called Valdobbiadine. The Col de Salici was vibrant with tiny bubbles, a complex aroma with medium dry flavor, and a particularly long persistent finish.

As the day turned into night, with the lights of Times Square ablaze below, my belief that life’s too short to not enjoy wine was affirmed.

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